Few, if any, of the 14,843 Arsenal fans who trudged into Highbury on April 26, 1986 to see their team struggle to a 2-2 draw against long since relegated West Bromwich Albion could have predicted that within a year, the Gunners would have landed their first piece of silverware.
It had been another damp squib of a campaign. The team tailed off in seventh place in the league and were edged out of the domestic cups by Luton Town and Aston Villa. Amid rumours that Arsenal were in talks with Barcelona boss Terry Venables, manager Don Howe resigned in late March, admitting: “The Club are no closer to winning trophies than when I took over as manager just over two years ago.”
Yet thanks to Howe’s willingness to place his faith in Arsenal’s emerging crop of youngsters, the ingredients were there for the Club’s stunning re-emergence at the end of the decade. Although still raw and gangly, centre back Tony Adams began to look the part alongside seasoned campaigner David O’Leary and Martin Keown also appeared set to become a key part of the defence for years to come.
In midfield, young David Rocastle made an instant impression on his debut at home to Newcastle, and Niall Quinn shocked Liverpool on his debut at Highbury by scoring Arsenal’s first goal in a 2-0 win. With young Martin Hayes also making a strong impression, Arsenal’s long-term future looked promising, but Howe wouldn’t be around to see his starlets bear fruit.
In May 1986, with Sir Alex Ferguson tipped by many to be appointed, the Arsenal board unveiled Millwall supremo George Graham as the new Arsenal manager. Graham swept through the Club instantly, stamping his authority immediately. “I want ambitious young men coupled with the right attitude,” he said. “With the players I have here, I believe I can bring success back to this club, but everyone is going to have to work hard.”
Graham began by dispensing with the old guard (strikers Tony Woodcock and Paul Mariner were shipped out on frees immediately) and Martin Keown, surprisingly, was sold to Aston Villa after a dispute about a pay rise. The only new signing that summer was strictly bargain basement, as Colchester winger Perry Groves joined for £75,000.
On the eve of the 1986/87 campaign, Graham claimed to have “an excellent fusion of experience (Sansom, Anderson, Williams) and a bounty of young talent which will put a smile on Arsenal fans’ faces.” The team delivered.
With attendances climbing back over the 30,000 mark, Arsenal embarked on an excellent run from October onwards, and sat pretty on top of the league for several weeks before fading away as their young legs grew weary in the New Year. Martin Hayes plundered 19 league goals, and Arsenal fans enjoyed the sight of a rejuvenated Paul Davis and Steve Williams working in tandem in midfield.
It was the League Cup (then sponsored by Littlewoods) which proved to be the catalyst to a new era of Gunners success. After Graham’s men disposed of Huddersfield, Manchester City, Charlton and Nottingham Forest, they came up against David Pleat’s Spurs in the two-legged semi-final.
After Clive Allen won the game for Tottenham at Highbury, and then scored an early goal at White Hart Lane to put Spurs 2-0 up in the tie with just 45 minutes left, the game looked up for Arsenal. But from their dressing room, Arsenal players heard the stadium announcer inform the crowd where they could purchase their cup final tickets. Arsenal players emerged for the second half ready for combat. Goals from Anderson and Quinn sent the tie to a replay at White Hart Lane, and on one of Arsenal’s most famous nights, late strikes from Ian Allinson and David Rocastle sent the Gunners through to Wembley.
Arsenal faced Liverpool in the final, and on a glorious sunny Wembley day, two Charlie Nicholas strikes saw Arsenal destroy the ‘Ian Rush hoodoo’ (previously whenever the prolific Welshman scored for his side, they had never lost a game) and enable Arsenal win their first silverware for eight years. It was more than a decent start for Graham, and 25 years later the sheer impact of that unforgettable night at the Lane, and the golden afternoon at Wembley, cannot be underestimated.
It was the beginning of the modern era for the Club. The ambitious Graham was not satisfied by that cup success, and neither was he convinced that Charlie Nicholas was the man to fire in the goals which would enable Arsenal to bring the title back to Highbury for the first time since 1971. He signed striker Alan Smith from Leicester and full-back Nigel Winterburn from Wimbledon, two more key pieces in the Graham jigsaw.
The 1987/88 campaign was almost a repeat of the previous season (the Gunners tailed off in sixth place after being on top spot for several weeks) but this time, Luton Town’s last-minute winner saw them secure silverware in the Littlewoods Cup final.
With the arrivals of Kevin Richardson, Brian Marwood, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and the emergence of another starlet Paul Merson, Graham said on the eve of the 1988/89 campaign: “I think that we will be there or thereabouts this time.”
But not even Graham could have predicted the drama of what would unfold that season. The campaign was notable for the success of Arsenal’s ruthlessly-drilled defence (“We squeezed and squeezed teams, never giving them a second” explained skipper Tony Adams), shaky home form on the Highbury ‘mudflats’ (“a winkle pickers’ paradise” joked winger Brian Marwood, as the team won only half their home games) and outstanding form on their travels, which saw them rack up massive away wins at Wimbledon (5-1), and Nottingham Forest and West Ham (4-1).
Graham’s men also possessed the ability to grind out tight victories against obdurate opponents. Despite the excellent team spirit and zest for battle, Graham’s boys let a massive lead slip against Liverpool in the league and needed to secure a highly unlikely 2-0 victory at Anfield in the final game to win the title.
Along with the Fairs Cup victory of 1970, the events on the evening May 26 remain the most famous in Arsenal’s history, as Michael Thomas’ late charge from midfield secured Graham the prize he craved and which he had won as a player with the Gunners.
Alan Smith recalled: “George was so calm at half time. He told us to try and get one early in the second half, and then try and move in for the kill late on. You couldn’t have scripted it better.” The next day, Islington was a sea of red and white as fans welcomed their returning heroes home from Anfield.
The Gunners could only finish fourth, 17 points behind champions Liverpool in the 1989/90 season, but the next five years would prove to be one of the most successful periods in Arsenal’s history.
- Martin Hayes’ 19 league goal haul in 1986/87 included nine from the penalty spot
- On the eve of the Anfield match in May 1989, tabloid headlines included: “You Haven’t Got A Prayer Arsenal,” and “Men Against Boys”
- Arsenal went into the Littlewoods Cup Final of 1987 in the midst of a goal drought. Between January 18 and March 28, the Gunners netted just one league goal